“The Whole World Still Watching”

Alderman Exhibitions

With this exhibition, cocurated by Dan Mills and Maureen Sherlock, the Randolph Street Gallery joined progressive groups around Chicago in commemorating the 20th anniversary of the demonstrations and police riots that took place during the 1968 Democratic convention. The exhibition—incorporating work by 25 artists ranging in age from 26 to 66—included “counter-monuments” specifically addressing the “counter-convention” of 1968, as well as works that testified more generally to diverse voices of political activism in current art practice. The work, by well-established and little-known artists, from Chicago and elsewhere, encompassed a wide variety of means, from folk art to street art to video, and was accompanied by a simple but well-put-together catalogue with reproductions and statements from all the artists. Unfortunately, the exhibition inadvertently recalled the sexism of the prefeminist ’60s by including only four women among the 25 exhibitors.

In general, the more specific work—that which engaged historical events directly—was the most successful in this context, making the exhibition a source of information as well as a significant memorial to an inspired spirit of dissent. There was little evidence of the spunky yippie genius for theatricality and offense that, more than any other element, turned the ’68 demonstrations into a sensational media event, and captured the world’s attention. Further, the transposition of a ’68 convention catchphrase to the ’80s provoked a subtle shift in meaning: from an insider’s confidence in the rapt attention of a global village (The Whole World Is Watching!) to an open-ended, taunting invitation from the outside—okay, we’re watching and waiting, but for what?

At best, the current work was able to offer a glimmer of political possibility. The hesitation about offering more may stem from the fact that past tactics—however dynamic—were essentially spontaneous, often violent gestures. A more considered view of violence is evident in certain pieces. Joe Cavalier’s Redwood Sticks for Bluejays, 1988, invokes the ’68 convention’s invidious police presence by presenting a circle of hinged nightsticks on a pedestal, poised and agentless—their anonymity recalls the fact that officers took off their ID tags before striking demonstrators. Dan Peterman’s photographic “counter-monument,”—Port-a-Cops, 1988, taps a vein of yippielike humor, juxtaposing the ’68 image of a line of police encircling Grant Park with a picture of the line of porta-potties that currently surround the park. But the most cogent, if unassuming “counter-monument” to the enforcement of law and order was Janet Koenig’s Proposal to Restore Haymarket Statue to Haymarket Square, 1988. The statue in question—of a policeman with arm upraised, like the Statue of Liberty—was erected in 1886 to commemorate the deaths of seven policemen at a rally in Haymarket Square. The statue had been repeatedly defaced, torn down, and bombed over the years, in protest of its “official forgetting” (Koenig’s phrase) of the other story—the deaths of seven workers killed by police the day before the bombing, at a labor rally for the eight-hour workday. The statue—eventually moved to the safety of the police academy—has become an obnoxious symbol of officially sanctioned violence and abridgment of citizens’ rights. Koenig’s proposal would restore the statue to its original location, but surround it with a heavy chain-link fence and barbed wire, symbolically protecting and restraining the forces of law and order.

In general, works by big-name “political” artists (Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Jenny Holzer) seemed like calling cards here, referring to issues of violence and control but withdrawing into a vacuum of vague outrage. Faith Ringgold’s Flag Story Quilt, 1985, however, spoke with eloquent specificity, condensing the history of racial injustice in America into one circumambulating tale, told in dialect, about the manipulation and frame-up of a black amputee/Vietnam vet/writer of erotica. Other work brought in other struggles—Carlos Cortez’s posters for the Industrial Workers of America, Edgar Heap of Birds’ text raising issues of Native American rights. Tom Kalin’s self-sticking posters (which can still be seen around town) target AIDS as the historical issue of ’88, juxtaposing key events in ’68 with AIDS-related information from ’88, and an image of a Black Power salute with that of a surgically gloved hand. Kalin comes closest to invoking a sense of urgency by targeting an issue that—like the Vietnam war—concerns life, death, and politics.

Laurie Palmer